“The creative energy of Mightywords’ self-publishers exceeded the technological innovation of the enterprise. Some of it raised eyebrows among those looking for profit curves, not necessarily cultural ones, and had envisioned MightyWords as more of a business-to-business enterprise than a retail portal — B2B being Wall Streets flavor-of-the-month at the time. (Remember, this was just prior to the current era of social media whose business model thrived on clicks and user-supplied content.
I’d give author game-creator Joseph Matheny first prize for sweepingly imaginative use of the medium to play with an entirely new literary form beyond what we concieved — or, at first, knew what to make of. To this day, Matheny declines to state whether he intended his novel-length work (Ong’s Hat: The Beginning, first offered for sale in as a book form through Mightywords), as fiction or nonfiction. Its narrative structure allows it to be enjoyed as a speculative fiction. Through hyperlinks that invite readers to various online sites in which they can interact with content, it also invites readers on an immerrsive, interactive adventure. Internet scholars and critics tag it as the first of many Alternate Reality Games (ARG), a transmedia form that has evolved in complexity and popularity over the past twenty years since Ong’s Hat was first released. (This interactivity was a stretch given the limitations of supporting digital platforms at the time – but nevertheless clearly and breathtakingly feasible in terms of its promise.)
The author spun his tale around a nontoxic, benign (Remember those?) conspiracy theory that had been floating around chat-rooms for years. The conspiracy stories purported that the real ghost town of Ong’s Hat, New Jersey, had been the site of secret experiments by rogue scientists from the underground “Institute of Chaos” who opened an interdimensional portal – using a machine dubbed “The Egg” – through which of the town’s former resident’s had disappeared. This led to a loosely structured, Internet game in which participants traded information about sighting of Ong’s Hat evidence and former residents.
Matheny’s work expanded on this plot twist. It follows characters who had used the portal to escape the town after a deadly, toxic spill from a nearby chemical factory. Instead of using roads, the characters travel inter-dimensionally. Readers are invited to use hyperlinks to track the characters’ appearances in verious other locals, as well as report their own sightings, adding to the narrative. The work remains available through Matheny’s website and other venues, including Amazon.
Regrettably, unlike the myths of Ong’s Hat, Mightywords proved ephemeral. One minute it was poised for an ISP that would made even staffers like myself who had been given founders’ stock incredibly rich overnight. The next minute it fell burning like Icarus from the Silicon Valley sun. The high tech bubble burst in 2001, taking lots of startups with it. Our backers pulled away and pressured MacAskill to close down and sell the tecchnology – sans its creative content, which was owned after all by the authors. Barnes & Noble, which had also invested in the venture, stepped forward and took away what was left of both Fatbrain and Mightywords. Ironically, this could have given B&N a competitive advantage over the then still fledgling Amazon. But B&N remained wedded to its brick-and-mortar, trad-publishing business model and let Jeff Bezos eat its lunch, as we all know now.”
“One can be too far ahead of the curve. Timing is everything when it comes to technological innovation. Your new idea has to appeal to Goldilocks and be neither too hot and nor too cold. It might be different for creative ideas like Matheny’s opus. Often the greatest ideas show up in the early days of a form — like Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which remains unchallenged as the first major Western European novel and still among its greatest. Maybe if I had read Matheny’s instructions carefully enough, I could have found that interdimensional egg machine back to the some alternative future where things would have worked out differently.
There is a parallel between the mythical interdimensional disappearence of Ong’s Hat, New Jersey, and of the now vanished Mightywords, of which hardly a wisp remains onlinr. The enterprise – which had taken up two floors of a large, Silicon Valley office park building, disappeared as quickly as it had appeared all shiny and bright with its millions in venture capital loose change. I nearly forgot the plac myself as I continued on my quotidian path meanwhile, using my vaunted founder’s stock certificates as birdcage liners. Nonetheless, I’m happy to be able to say that I was there at the birth of indie digital publishing in any case. It’s also worth noting, that as far as we have come since Mightywords’ early, online book delivery system, we’ve yet to equal the creative scope of how digital storytelling could evolve online. The current platforms, however efficient, don’t allow for much Ong’s-Hat-style interdimensionality, or for inserting a modest hyperlink, or a video clip, or sound, or such that is available to me right now in writing this modest blog, even. Perhaps moving forward will involve checking back for stuff we’ve left along the curve we’re always trying to get ahead of.”
The first thing one learns upon becoming a subject of press interest is that there’s actually very little one can generally do in the face of inaccurate or even malicious press coverage. – Barrett Brown
The tl;dr version
(I urge you to come back and follow the referenced links to verify the validity of the information)
There’s a podcast/website called The Skeptoid that is run by one Brian Dunning. The website seems to consist of a collection of transcriptions of the Skeptoid podcast, links to the podcast and a personal vita for Mr. Dunning. I learned that recently, Brian Dunning ran an episode of the Skeptoid titled: Ong’s Hat, which was, predictably about the Ong’s Hat literary game.
Brian Dunning claims that his podcast, “Skeptoid: Critical Analysis of Pop Phenomena is an award-winning weekly science podcast. Since 2006, Skeptoid has been revealing the true science behind popular misinformation and urban legends.” His words.
While I haven’t sampled any of the other offerings on that Skeptoid website, I did read the text transcription of Mr. Dunning’s “investigation” into the Ong’s Hat urban legend and found it dismissive and misinformed in the following areas.
Robert Anton Wilson is was a participant in the Ong’s Hat project
The Skeptoid, aka Brian Dunning, starts with the following basis for his analysis:
To explain what happened, I’m going to lay some groundwork by referring you back to someplace unexpected: last week’s episode #657 on the Illuminati. When we see pop stars and other celebrities today holding their hands up in the triangle symbol — possibly hoping to persuade their fans that they are members of the Illuminati which they believe to be an ancient, all-powerful sect — we learned that this legend really only goes back a few decades, to a little piece of cultural engineering dreamed up by a few writers at Playboy magazine. Robert Anton Wilson created the reader feedback campaign in the magazine and co-authored a novel trilogy, that essentially created the entirety of modern belief in a powerful shadow cabal called the Illuminati. It was a fascinating example of how a well-planned and well-executed cultural engineering campaign can effectively create whole mythology which not only survives but actually flourishes and persists for decades. Today, intelligent people honestly believe that the Illuminati exist — thanks mainly to Robert Anton Wilson.
When we look into the background literature for Ong’s Hat, guess whose name we find: Robert Anton Wilson. That should set the tone for where we can expect the rabbit hole of Ong’s Hat to lead. Wilson is mentioned several times throughout Joseph Matheny’s writings. In his book, Matheny wrote of having lived in Santa Cruz, California with a group of academics, authors, and pioneers of the psychedelic movement — a group who called themselves the Formless Ocean Group. Among them was Robert Anton Wilson. It was from these folks that Matheny — according to his legend — learned of and first read a collection of documents titled The Incunabula Papers. Supposedly, these papers are how he first learned of the experiments at Ong’s Hat.
I won’t bother with critiquing the theories regarding RAW and his role in the modern belief in the Illuminati that Mr. Dunning holds. I’ll leave that to the RAW fans out there. I am not here to teach a history lesson.
I will, however, correct the erroneous and confusing assertion that RAW’s name somehow appears in “background material” for Ong’s hat. While RAW was aware of the Ong’s Hat project he was not a participant. Yes undeniably, he was a mentor to and influence on me, but what one has to do with the other is tenuous at best. Correlation does not equal causation. I’m not sure what “background” literature Brian is referring to, but Bob’s name never appears in any of the Ong’s Hat material. Where Bob ‘s name does appear is on my website in conjunction with other projects we did together. I think Skeptoid is experiencing some information drift.
Anyway, that is a minor aside.
On to the meat of our corrections.
Skeptoid asserts that my dearly departed friends, The Formless Ocean Group, never existed
The Formless Ocean Group — which never actually existed outside of Matheny’s fiction — appears to have been based on other similar groups of counterculture intellectuals who came together, lived together, worked and wrote together, got high and broke new ground. Think of the free-living occultists who lived at Jack Parson’s house in Los Angeles called the Parsonage and founded the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, as described in the book Sex and Rockets; or those who gathered at the New Jersey property of paranormalist Ivan T. Sanderson called the Farm and refined the New Age mythologies of ley lines, ancient aliens, and the Bermuda Triangle.
In a nutshell, the entire story of Ong’s Hat was a fictional work, created mostly if not entirely by Matheny. Nothing about it checks out. There are no corroborating reports of any group ever calling themselves the Formless Ocean Group, and no record of any of its members living at its given address in Santa Cruz. There never was an Institute for Chaos Studies at the ashram; indeed, there never was a Moorish Science Ashram. No acres were ever purchased in the Pine Barrens in 1978. No group of runaway boys ever lived there. About the only thing that does have a grain of truth is the name of the place itself, Ong’s Hat.
I could even draw a full circle, from Matheny’s Formless Ocean Group to Ivan Sanderson’s Farm, to the Bigfoots and other cryptids that Sanderson pursued, to the Jersey Devil, to Daniel Leeds, and right back around to Matheny’s ashram. The fabric of our cultural legends is richly interwoven indeed.
Brian Dunning via The Skeptoid claims that the group made up of now mostly late friends of mine, never existed. The group was an informal salon-style group of people who met in Santa Cruz in the early 90s, primarily meeting in Nina Graboi’s and Elizabeth Gipps living rooms. Nina lived downstairs from me at the 2nd street apartment complex. This was pre-Internet, and the group never was formal in any way, it pre-dated public Internet activity, which explains why Mr. Dunning was unable to find any reference to it. This, of course, could have been deduced by the timeframe, clearly referenced by me in several places and the acknowledgment that this as an informal group but of course, if something isn’t on the Internet, it never really existed. Right?
Here’s an excerpt from the introduction to Ong’s Hat the Beginning, print edition:
Becoming a resident of 321 Second Street acted as a nexus point for me. Nina was fond of entertaining various counter-culture figures as they came through central California in her “parlor.” Eventually, a semi-organized group formed out of these salon sessions and took a name: the F.O.G., Formless Ocean Group. By the way. of association with Nina, Bob, and the F.O.G., I was brought into contact with many of the psychedelic figureheads of the time…
You notice in no way did I allege that everybody in the F.O.G. Group lived at the second street complex. However, I did, Nina Graboi did, others did, and at various times people came through and stayed with us or stopped by for a visit. It was, as I have said several times, a location that acted as a nexus for various people in the scene to stop by and mingle. The F.O.G. actually grew out of the impromptu salon that formed around Nina’s living room, which was downstairs from my apartment.
For example, here’s a photo of Bob and I in Nina Graboi’s garden (that’s Nina with her back to us). This photo was taken in 1991. At that time, Bob was living in LA but soon after he and Arlen moved to Santa Cruz to be near their children. As I said, that place was a NEXUS.
Funny aside, Bruce Eisner (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruce_Eisner) who ran a more formal group called the Island Group, nicknamed the F.O.G. “Friends of Gips” since we were all part of Elizabeth’s extended family. I recall F.O.G. being started in part as an informal alternative to the Island Group. The F.O.G. members had little to no regard for formality or structure.
Here’s another photo of another salon style hangout, upstairs on the deck of the 2nd street complex. On this day we comingled with another slightly more formal group from Stanford (but annoyingly formal) called Millbrook West. A lot of the people pictured were also attendees at a lot of the FOG meetings.
What follows next in Skeptoid’s “analysis” is a lot of unfounded extrapolation that the living room salon group I hung out with in the early 90s is in fact somehow drawn from Parson’s Pasadena “Parsonage” and some place called the Farm which I had no previous knowledge of. (See Skeptoid quote above).
I would point out that none of this speculation is presented in the language of such by Mr. Dunning, but rather presented as a foregone conclusion.
Anyone who has followed my work knows that I have always dedicated my work to the F.O.G. The group dissolved by the early nineties, I had gone off to Silicon Valley to pursue my interests in technology and art, eventually, one by one all the elder members passed on. These people meant a lot to me and my time with them is still one of my fondest memories.
Ong’s Hat Was Not a Game
Some say Matheny was trying to create a game; a type called an Alternate Reality Game, a kind of real-world adventure where people follow a storyline, find clues, and solve puzzles. But there really aren’t any puzzles or solutions in Ong’s Hat. It’s just information, the fabric of a detailed urban legend, which you can choose to believe or not; you can take a deep dive and research thoroughly, or you can laugh it off as a silly story. Either way, Matheny did pull off a feat of cultural engineering by inserting the Ong’s Hat mythology firmly into pop culture.
This one is really hard to digest because there is no basis in fact and no real reason why he would make this assertion unless he is simply skimming and half reading things to draw his conclusions. I guess it must be awfully hectic trying to throw a show together every week or whatever his publishing cycle is.
I’ve said it a hundred times or more, I reiterated it in 2001 when I closed the game and I have repeated it multiple times since in print. THIS WAS A LITERARY/GAME HYBRID EXPERIMENT. Therefore, I’ll simply give you these links, rather than continuing to flog a dead horse. If you’re really interested, you can read them or you can repeat the opinion of someone who clearly did not.
The short answer is, many qualified people recognized it as a game because it was a game. It was designed to be a new style of game, one that blended literary style with video and RPG style narrative, and structured, ala, gameplay, to advance the narrative. It also attempted to use an infinite game structure as much as possible, playing for the simple joy of playing, rather than zero-sum game style. I think this is the part that baffled people most. Structure and feature wise, I took a swiss army knife approach and again I recognize that this could confuse some people. However, this approach has allowed it to pivot over time and therefore contributed to its longevity. Just because something isn’t a game as you understand it doesn’t mean it isn’t a game.
Sometimes I think I need to write a book about everything that went on in the background to make this work. Other times I feel like I should just stop trying to explain it to people who have shown no interest in understanding the work on its merits. I meet people all the time who instinctively get what I was attempting. I have also met people who have already made up their minds even in some cases telling me they had “no interest in hearing me out.” Anyway, back on point—
“ With Ong’s Hat, Matheny took the concept of ‘legend tripping’ – that is, the act of venturing to areas of some horrific and supernatural event aIa The Blair Witch Project- and shifted it online. “I set up this mythos, and hid elements of it all over the internet,” he remembers. “There were phone numbers that you could call, and you would get strange voice mail messages; you might even get a call back from one of the characters. Everybody would come at it from a different angle. It was not a zero-sum game. The whole thing was set up to be an infinite play, so different people would get different things out of its persistence.” This element “People who are interested in this kind of experience are interested in working together. It’s what the community calls the ‘collective detective’ scenario,” says Matheny. “One of my influences was also the murder mystery theatre things that they used to do … I think that people like that kind of stuff. They like to feel that the story is crossing the proscenium and they’re immersed in the story -even to the point of being a character in the story. of the experience, with players reassembling the scattered elements of the story in order to determine exactly what it all meant, would go on I think that’s the hook with ARGs.”
Put a pin in the above because it also dovetails into a future point.
The ”gameplay centered around two things. One the eBook and two the Darkplanet forum. The ebook has a lot of built-in rollover states and hidden clickable areas.
Download the ebook, here https://archive.org/details/inc-iso for just one example. Navigate to the page (seen below) and roll your mouse around. You will see some still functioning pop-ups and click states. Even though this ebook was designed in a very early version of Adobe Acrobat, a lot of the effects still somewhat function. Some of these used to lead to pages on Incunabula.org (now retired) with more solves required to move forward. I also used to set up “pop-up” pages on the website that would appear and then mysteriously disappear. Steganography was used on some of the images on the website and many times cryptic messaging was scattered across a fleet of interlinked websites. There were also geocaches, bookcrossings and dead drops. Why am I even explaining this? Oh yeah…
Like any good narrative, the Ong’s Hat story actually intertwined two distinct plots or sequences of events: the events in the Ong’s Hat Ashram in the 1970s that the “Incunabula 83 Papers” allegedly detail, which served as the story level of the narrative, and the discovery and distribution of the documents sometime later, which served as the discourse level of the narrative. So, undeniably, the Ong’s Hat experience had the aesthetic elements of a story required to make an ARG an immersive experience. Additionally, Ong’s Hat: Incunabula, by using the various real-world communication methods available on the Internet at the time to tell its story, and by requiring players to interact at a critical point of the discourse, also incorporated the game elements that traditionally make up and define an alternate reality game. At the very least, like House of Leaves, referenced earlier in this book, it was a literary/digital crossover, utilizing Xerox, BBS and later Internet technology, CD ROM technology, and even traditional print publishing as it’s various mediums. In fact, one of the creators of the original CD ROM has said that it included 23 intricate puzzles, most of which were never solved!
And one more for good measure, although far from the only clear signs of the game and puzzle aspects of Incunabula/Ong’s Hat.
In Legend-Tripping Online, he describes how his observations led him to a bizarre Internet phenomenon, the main focus of his book: an “immersive” online experience—part mystery, part game, part who knows what—known as both the Incunabula Papers and Ong’s Hat. Those were the abbreviated titles of documents that someone—probably a group of four provocateurs—posted on The Well, a pioneering Internet social site in the late 1980s.
The Incunabula Papers/Ong’s Hat was, or is, a “many-threaded, open-ended interactive narrative” that ”weds an alternate history of chaos science and consciousness studies to conspiracy theories, parallel dimensions, and claims that computer-mediated environments can serve as magical tools,” Kinsella explains.
Fortunately, he elaborates: After sitting largely dormant on the social Web site for a decade, the documents provoked a widespread “immersive legend-trip” in the late 1990s. Via Web forums, participants investigated the documents—manifestos—which spun up descriptions of brilliant but suppressed discoveries relating to paths that certain scientists had forged into alternate realities. Soon, those haunted dimensions existed in the minds and fantasies of Ong’s Hat’s many participants. That was evident as they responded to the original postings by uploading their own—all manner of reflections and artifacts: personal anecdotes, audio recordings, and videos—to augment what became “a really immersive world, and it was vast,” says Kinsella.
Rather than continuing to flog a dead horse, I refer you to multiple articles that can be found on my site: https://josephmatheny.com that clearly demonstrate that Ong’s Hat suffered from acute gamification.
I Am Still Being Cryptic About the Origins Behind Ong’s Hat
What does Matheny himself have to say? Well, he’s as cryptic as ever — stating that he’s kind of done talking about it, but he’s not yet giving any hint that he might have made it all up.
What follows is a small sampling of the many items prominently highlighted on my site. Does this looks like someone who’s being “cryptic”? I see that Mr. Dunning has a copy of a link to the Salon piece at the bottom of the article on Skeptoid, but I wonder if he actually listened to it? Well, I advise you to and then ask yourself, “Does this sound like a man being coy or cryptic?” Before you say it, the Salon article came out months before the Skeptoid article.
This Wikipedia entry was not made by me but I have never contested it nor tried to disavow it. It is correct and it has been in place for a very long time. I even link to it from my site, on the opening page.
This and Kinsella’s book, published in 2011 is something that I have not only never contested by have actively promoted on this site and others.
Remember when I said to put a pin in this?
“The response of Joseph Matheny to Legend-Tripping Online suggests the success of Kinsella’s read on the Incunabula Papers. On his Web site, Matheny wrote that Kinsella “did an excellent job and only missed the mark with two or three of his conclusions,” which Matheny said he would clear up by writing a complimentary account.”
Read the rest at your own leisure and tell me, does me promoting these items sound like someone who is being “cryptic?
“I set up this mythos, and hid elements of it all over the internet,” he remembers. “There were phone numbers that you could call and you would get strange voice mail messages; you might even get a call back from one of the characters. Everybody would come at it from a different angle. It was not a zero-sum game. The whole thing was set up to be an infinite play, so different people would get different things out of its persistence.” This element “People who are interested in this kind of experience are interested in working together. It’s what the community calls the ‘collective detective’ scenario,” says Matheny. “One of my influences was also the murder mystery theatre things that they used to do … I think that people like that kind of stuff. They like to feel that the story is crossing the proscenium and they’re immersed in the story -even to the point of being a character in the story. of the experience, with players reassembling the scattered elements of the story in order to determine exactly what it all meant, would go on I think that’s the hook with ARGs.”
Yes, I already hear the objections but check the dates of those articles. ALL of them precede the publication date of the Skeptoid article, with the exception of the Gizmodo piece.
My Conclusions Regarding Brian Dunning and The Skeptoid Podcast
All in all, if I were a fan of Skeptoid I would unpack a few episodes besides this one and see if Brian is on point with other of his self proclaimed “Skeptoid style investigations”. I mean, after all, he is encouraging us to be skeptics, right? I see from a simple search that this isn’t his first error or even his second or– well you get the point. One can only hope he is a sincere actor and learns from and admit to his errors.
As I said before, be careful who you allow as the curator of your “truths” on the Internet Because after all, it is 2019 and it is the Internet.
One of the things I always wanted to do in 2001, post-Incunabula/Ong’s Hat was host to a conversation about what’s real and how perception can be weaponized and used against you. I was not allowed to do this mainly because the conspiranoia crowd had such a violent reaction to my “admission” that a far-out story like Ong’s Hat was actually a modern Borgesian fairy tale. Too bad, because considering all the things that followed, like Pizzagate and Q-Anon, that may have been a useful conversation to have had that early in the process. That part of it was always intended as an act of closure, it just never happened due to irrational hysteria that shouted down any attempt.
I fully support the stated mission statement of Skeptoid but at least, in this case, it seems they do not really live up to the promise.
In conclusion, I’ll remind you, gentle reader, be a critical thinker, be a skeptic, by all means, but please, if you’re going to critique something, take the time to actually read and/or listen to the material you are critiquing. Otherwise, your critique is neither a critique nor is it skeptical inquiry. It is merely dismissive opinion and frankly, looks like click-bait.
It’s fine to be critical and skeptical of someone’s work. Just do so based on the facts and not based on supposition or a pre-constructed narrative or heaven forfend, on incomplete research and therefore, misinformation.
Be well and stay safe. Lots of mind virii are afloat these days. Always remember to wear the cognitive condom of critical thinking and always, TFYQA.
Gil came to sitting at a dirty, crumb-infested table in a doughnut shop somewhere in the southern California desert. He shook his head in a vain attempt to clear the cobwebs. Somewhere in his mind, drifting up from a black, bottomless void, a metallic voice calmly said: “The warm, woolly, cotton brain of infancy.”
“Wha…?” he said out loud.
”What?” the woman working the counter snapped.
“Nothing” Gil mumbled back. He glanced suspiciously at a soda machine that sat buzzing in the corner.
“Now — to figure out where I am and how I got here.” he thought to himself.
He looked around the doughnut shop, at the dingy sparse atmosphere. Fluorescent lights hummed overhead in a 60-cycle symphony, like something composed
by Stockhausen after the helicopters had run out of fuel. The shop, although locally owned, looked like it could presently be, or have once been, a
franchise establishment. It had that Spartan, stamped-out look, like it was a replica in a long line of generic family- owned shops scattered across
the country. For a moment Gil had a thought-movie of a factory somewhere that made modular doughnut shops, beneath a gigantic sign that read: “Generic, One Size Fits All. Family Owned Doughnut Shops for the Americas.” This flash was accompanied by snatches of sales and
marketing types milling about in loud, shiny suits, gibbering inane bumperstickerisms while strange machinery made cartoon-like sounds of boinging and
bonking as it chugged out the pre-fab shop pieces.
He shook his head again in an attempt to clear it up and a single word spontaneously formed in the fore of his mind: JUMP. Immediately after the word
formed his subconscious found a link and dredged up the Pointer Sisters’ song, “Jump”, and began playing the chorus in his head in a constant loop. For
a moment, he disassociated from the theater of his head and heard his central ego voice say: “I wonder why I didn’t associate something else, like Van
Halen’s ‘Jump’, instead?” Shaking his head at such a silly thought, he again attempted to focus his being and escape this oceanic free associative mode
he seemed to be awash in. He
swiveled sideways in a bright orange, molded plastic chair that was attached by a pole to the bottom of the table, which in turn was anchored to the
brown tile floor. The floor was specked with small bits of paper from straw covers and flecks of pastry. He took a slow, even breath. An Ink Spots song
emerged from a tinny speaker overhead with a low crackle.
His vision was blurry and he narrowed his eyelids in an attempt to take stock of what was right here and right now. Lying in front of him on the grungy
table he recognized a dog-eared copy of a book that he had picked up two weeks before at a hostel on State Street in Santa Barbara. He vaguely
remembered the act of reading some of it, but could not remember what the book was about. A bookmark made from a folded Del Taco napkin marking a place
halfway through the thick tome told him that he probably should remember. He tried to focus on the title but couldn’t make his mucus-coated eyes
behave. He saw a gray and semi- transparent bacteria strand do a lazy swim across his right eyeball.
“El Centro,” the voice piped in again.
He saw some weird graffiti carved into the table beneath the book, the bumpy scratched edges protruding from beneath either side. He didn’t bother to
move the book to read the graffiti. He was too weary, too full of ennui to muster up the energy to perform even so simple a task.
“El Centro. That’s what the truck driver who dropped me off here said
this place was called,” he suddenly remembered.
It began to come back to him in snatches. Climbing out of an eighteen wheeler at a highway off-ramp. The walk from the off-ramp to the doughnut shop,
the yellow sign atop a tall pole acting as a beacon that he followed, shuffling, in a daze, like a moth to a flame. Then, upon approaching the door,
narrowly escaping a collision with two men who were leaving the shop, post haste. He remembered catching a whiff of sulfur as they whirled past him. He
waved it off as some sort of synaesthesia. He remembered nearly being run over by one of them again, a small peculiar looking little man, who had
suddenly rushed back in to recover some forgotten leftovers. Walking, as if in a trance, Gil had shuffled to a table and dropped himself into one of
the swivel seats, falling like a bag of hammers. He attempted to regain some equilibrium and focus. He had been sitting there…how long? Minutes? Hours?
Days? He doubted that it was hours or days by the looks of the counter girl, an attractive but resolute looking young woman of undetermined Asian
descent, possibly with a dash of Mexican thrown in. He was fairly certain that he would have received the bum’s rush if he had been sitting there more
than a few minutes. He suddenly noticed that he reeked slightly of stale body odor.
He didn’t have a map so he was uncertain of his exact location, other than he was somewhere in California. He only knew that because he vaguely
remembered having heard of El Centro in some other time or place. He wasn’t even certain of why he had been dropped off here. Had he requested it? From
the looks of the terrain through the gray smudged windows, he was somewhere in the desert, so it was almost certainly southern California. Possibly
near the Mexican border.
“El Centro” he heard the female HAL like voice in his head repeat and his mind pulled up two more relative links from his subconscious. “The Middle
Pillar” and “The Middle of No Where” floated up to the surface and bobbed there for a moment in his conscious mind, like a fish flashing to the surface
of a pond. Turning and diving back down, both thoughts were gone as abruptly as they had arrived.
“El Centro” the HALette voice said again, like the automated announcement voice on a commuter train as it reaches a stop.
“Maybe if I get some food in me, my blood sugar levels will stabilize, and I’ll be able to think straight,” he mused internally.
No sooner had this thought crossed his mind than the counter girl barked at him in a shrill, half-accented voice, “You gonna order some doughnuts or
are you just gonna sit there?”
“What happens if I say, just sit here,” he croaked not bothering to look at her.
“I have to throw you out,” she said matter of factly. Then, softening a bit, she asked with a semi-concerned voice, “You okay?”
“Okay?” he asked, wondering if she were more concerned with his wellbeing or the fact that he might keel over on her shift and cause her undue
headaches. “Yeah, I’m okay. Can I have a…something with some substance? Something that will stick to my ribs?”
“You want a ham and cheese croissant?” she asked, going back to her official drone voice.
“Yeah, ham and cheese…coffee,” he said, his voice getting more clear with every effort to speak.
“It’s a special price if you get ham and cheese and coffee together,”
she chirped with a voice that approached something akin to gaiety.
“What’s it called?” he asked, surprising himself at his level of interest in this banal conversation and in its grounding effect. It was helping him
reel into focus. Plugging him into mundane reality again.
“It’s a breakfast special,” she continued, while placing a white paper
mat on a bright red plastic tray straight from the modular family shop factory. “It’s called a Jump. Like a jump start or a jump outta bed!”
He started at the word being spoken so close to having heard it in his inner narrative. The synchronicity factor was still fairly thick and that
creepy paranoid feeling that comes with it began its creepy crawl around the edges of his consciousness.
“Jump,” he repeated flatly. “Yeah. Gimme a Jump.”
He pulled a crumpled twenty dollar bill from the right front pocket of his jeans and carefully smoothed it out on the counter.
As he stood, obediently waiting for his JUMP special he thought back to a conversation that he had with his therapist, Dr. Seager.
They were in Doctor Seager’s office in New York, in the Upper East Side. The office was decorated with a heavy Victorian-era flavor, as if the interior
decorator had been Richard Burton himself. The “Great White Hunter” effect was completed by a gazelle head and antique blunderbusses hanging on the
dark mahogany walls. African charms, masks and other Voodoun trinkets were scattered about, almost laissez faire in their placement. A mighty oak
bookcase lined the length of the longest wall and it was filled with handsome leather bound editions of rare books in many languages, most having to do
with metaphysics or esoteric religious subjects. Opposite this bookcase was a picture window with a decent view of the city. A leather couch, which
creaked in mournful protest whenever a patient wiggled, sat lengthwise against the window. At the head of the couch sat a red brocaded armchair with a
matching ottoman. It is here that Doctor Seager sat as he listened to his patients and took occasional notes. He had placed it in such a way that he
could look out the window at the sky as he listened to the tales that came pouring from the inhabitants of the couch. The room swam in the comforting
aromas of leather and wood polish intermingled. It was in this same chair that Dr. Seager sat on this particular day in Gil’s memory and listened to
his story of “the voice.”
“When did you first begin to hear the voice?” Doctor Seager asked, while twirling a pencil around in his fingers, like a heavy-metal drummer doing the
flourish between beats.
“It all came to me one day in the library,” Gil said from the couch. He moved slightly and the leather made a creaking sound, like a saddle. “It
whispered in my ear. No, that’s not right. Not exactly in my ear but in my ear drum, but like from behind it. It kinda tickled. Do you get what I’m
“Hmmm. Um-hmmm,” was Doctor Seager’s reply. He looked out the window at some distant point in the cloudless sky. “Go on,” he said as if to the space at
“The tone was…warm in the sound-tech sense of the word. Um, mechanical, but warm. Rich is what I’m trying to say I guess. It had a melodic, tonal
quality, like it had a slight, ever so slight, stereo chorus effect on it,” Gil continued somewhat uncertain.
“I didn’t know that you were into sound engineering,” Doctor Seager said, sounding only slightly surprised.
“I’m not,” Gil replied. “but I’ve been around a lot of studios when I was hanging out with bands and even in a few…” He paused for a moment. “Anyway,”
the voice said, “have you ever looked back in history and noticed that every movement of rebellion in recorded history seems to have been co-opted by
the vested interests of power relatively soon after their inception? Ever wonder why? Hopefully you’re not alone.” I kinda jerked my head ’cause it
tickled my inner ear and then I had this feeling that the phrase had all these other meanings attached to it, like it carried multiple layers of
information on top, that said so much more than the simple words could, like an echo. Is any of this making sense?” he asked the Doctor in a pleading
“Yes, the ancient Hebrews, the Babylonians, Sumerians, others, many cultures have ascribed multi-dimensionality to words and their meanings. Even down
to letters in some cases, but we won’t go into all of that now. Is there more to this story?” he asked, tapping his pipe into an expensive- looking
ashtray that had an ornate knob in the center of it.
“Well, then the words ‘relative database’ came to mind and I thought about it. What I had just experienced with the…multidimensionality…of the words,
is that what you called it?” he looked to Doctor Seager for confirmation and received it in the form of a nod so he went on. “Relative databases, which
I knew from working with Dr. Abrams, how data sets linked to other data sets, ad infinitum.” He paused again as he tried to reel his mind back in from
the enormous complexity of it all. Taking a breath he started again, “Indra’s net. I read about that in a reference book on comparative religion in the
library. In the margin, someone had scrawled a note in pen that said:
‘If you are reading this book, you probably think the following chapter is not addressed to you and maybe it isn’t. However, you may want to ask
yourself, after reading this essay, if you weren’t even a little complicit in the propagation of what I call the Rebel Industry would you even be
reading these words?’
and I swear the hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I got a cold prickly sensation. Ok, back to the voice.” He fidgeted on the couch again,
clearly agitated by the retelling of this story. Doctor Seager made a note in his pad, without looking up. “Now the gears of my mind were making all
kinds of connections, like a spider web, but huge! I began to contemplate, no a better term would be to see, how we carry a complete
recapitulation of the planet’s memory, our own racial, genetic and species-oriented memories, maybe what Jung was getting at with the collective
unconscious, but bigger…” He trailed off, lost in the enormity
of the concepts again. He noticed that his T-shirt was beginning to stick damply to his shoulder blades.
“Yes,” Doctor Seager said firmly, “so this turned into a kind of epiphany.” He said it as a statement of fact rather than posing it as a question.
“Yeah, but then I heard the voice again,” Gil replied, “only this time it was cold and metallic, not warm and melodic and it said: ‘There seems to be
an observable pattern of movements of rebellion against consensus reality followed by a co-option of those movements by established cultural
institutions. Can this pattern be broken or should it?’” Gil sighed. “And then it was gone for a while.”
“Has it been back since?” Doctor Seager asked, raising his eyebrows and staring straight at Gil.
“Yes,” Gil replied. “The voice often comes in and reads off a list of names. Like: John Dillinger, James Dean, Marlon Brando, Henry Miller, Jack
Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, D.B. Cooper, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Robert Anton Wilson, punk rock, hip-hop, Hakim Bey, grunge, Colton
Harris-Moore, Bikers. Harley Davidson, The Rockstar, The Hacker. Other times it recites lists of movies or books like: The Ego and His Own; The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt; Rebel Without a Cause; The Wild One; Wild in the Streets; Easy Rider
; A Clockwork Orange; Taxi Driver; Fight Club; The Matrix; American Beauty…and it always ends by saying:
‘We have to stop looking to Hollywood, the music industry, Madison Avenue, Wall Street and even the publishing industry for our concept of rebels.’”
Doctor Seager sat still for a moment. “Do the words Culture Jammer
mean anything to you, Gil?” he finally asked after a pregnant pause. “No.”
“Have you ever read the life story or any accounts of the life of John
Nash?” Doctor Seager queried.
“No,” Gil answered again.
“Well, you should look into those things Gil. In the case of Nash, skip the movie and actually read A Beautiful Mind. He had a glimpse through
the media curtain, saw through the weave, if only faintly. Unfortunately, he let himself be convinced that he was going insane. I have a suspicion that
a part of you is talking to you from outside the wall of artificiality, maybe a future self, and a part of your psyche that dwells outside this
construct that many call ‘reality’. Did you know that several prominent mathematicians have very robust theories that seem to indicate that we do in
fact dwell inside a simulation of some sort?”
“You mean, like the Matrix?” Gil asked.
“Um, yes, sort of like that, but without the cheesy Maya effects and
crappy sequels,” the doctor responded dryly.
“I don’t understand,” Gil half spoke, half croaked.
“Let me read a few things from the dictionary,” the doctor said, picking up a dictionary from the desk.
“Co-option: To take or assume for one’s own use. Appropriate: To neutralize or win over (an independent minority, for example) through assimilation
into an established group or culture.
“Rebel: One who rebels or is in rebellion. Rebellion: To refuse allegiance to and oppose by force an established government or ruling authority. To
resist or defy an authority or a generally accepted convention.”
He closed the dictionary and fell silent, looking at Gil, who was on the couch, with his forearm draped over his eyes. The Doctor then reached into a
drawer of his desk and pulled down a worn and dog-eared spiral notebook that looked to be several years old. He opened it in the middle and thumbed a
few pages until he found what he was looking for. He proceeded to read from the faded and smeared blue-lined pages.
“The answer is simple. What we see in films like American Beauty and
F i gh t Club
is not actually a critique of consumerism; it’s merely a restatement of the ‘critique of mass society’ that has been around since the 1950s. The two
are not the same. In fact, the critique of mass society has been one of the most powerful forces driving consumerism for more than 40 years.
“What Fight Club and films like Rabbit, Run present, in a user-friendly fashion, is the critique of mass society, which was developed
in the late
1950s in classic works like William Whyte’s The Organization Man (1956), Vance Packard’s The Status Seekers (1959) and Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd (1960). The central idea is quite simple: capitalism requires conformity to function correctly. As a result, the system is
based upon a generalized system of repression. Individuals who resist the pressure to conform therefore subvert the system, and aid in its overthrow.
“This sort of ‘anti-advertising’ was enormously successful in the
1960s, transforming the VW bug from a Nazi car into the symbol of the hippie counterculture and making the Volvo the car of choice for an entire
generation of leftist academics. Similar advertising strategies are just as successful today, and are used to sell everything from breakfast cereal to
clothing. Thus, the kind of ad parodies that we find in Adbusters, far from being subversive, are indistinguishable from many genuine ad campaigns.
Flipping through the magazine, one cannot avoid thinking back to Frank’s observation that ‘business is amassing great sums by charging admission to the
ritual simulation of its own lynching.’”
He stopped reading and closed the notebook and continued to stare thoughtfully at the wrinkled cover.
“Doc, you’re being weird with all this speech-making, even if you are reading it. Are you trying to indoctrinate me into something? Are you
anti-capitalist?” Gil asked taking his forearm off his eyes for the first time since the doctor had begun reading.
“No, not in the least, Gil,” the Doctor replied. “I simply wrote those words down several years ago, because when I read them and I admit, I forget
where I copied them from, I was making a note to remind myself that rebellion and the ‘spectacle’ as the Situationist International would have called
it, cannot go hand-in-hand without the latter absorbing the former.” He took a slow, deep breath and continued.
“Where else can you see a megastar like Brad Pitt railing against
khakis and duvets and all sorts of commercial crap all the time pulling down a seven-figure salary while doing it? I mean, some lines from the movie
and the book make brilliant stand-alone statements against the homogenized vacuum of consensus culture.” He moves forward in his chair and adjusts the
sleeves of his tweed jacket.
“The fact that we’re sitting here talking about this through the medium of a Hollywood movie only highlights how much the media trance affects all of
us.” He turns to look straight at you the reader as if through a camera lens. “Yes, even you, reading this, who think you’re above it all.” He quickly
looks away, coughs, adjusts his tie and recedes back behind the fourth wall.
After a pregnant pause, he began again. “People like Stewart Home, in his book The Mind Invaders makes some salient points about this type of
phenomena…” he started to say.
“Is all of the media on the take or something?” Gil interrupted. “I mean, yes, people like Brad Stone and Oprah are on the payroll, in the pockets of
corporate interests obviously, but everyone? I mean, c’mon. Next you’re going to start talking about controlled demolition and remote
controlled airplanes and shape shifting reptilians…” He trailed off. “You’re not, are you?” he croaked dryly.
“No, I’m not,” the doctor said briskly. “Look, Gil, you need to take
some notes on what we are talking about here, and go do some research before we go any further. Also I’m going to give you a book and I want you to
read it. Then come back here and we’ll talk about this some more.”
“A book?” Gil asked puzzled.
“Yes. Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Read it and then come back next week and we’ll talk
about this some more. I think this book can give some basis of understanding for what may be happening to you,” Doctor Seager said
solemnly, reaching for a white-covered book on the desk behind his chair.
“What a coincidence that he already had it on his desk,” Gil thought as he took the book from the therapist.
“You need to get your head around these voice phenomena, or you
could end up having a major break and spiral in dereliction,” said the doctor, with a tone of concern.
“I said, here’s your Jump!” The counter girl was almost yelling.
“Huh?” Gil’s head jerked up from his reverie. “Sorry. I spaced out. I
guess I’m stupid from hunger.”
The twenty-dollar bill was still lying on the counter where he had smoothed it out a few minutes before.
The counter girl looked down at the twenty and then back at Gil’s
“Tell ya what,” she said in a firm voice, “this one’s on me.”
“Thanks!” he said with genuine elements of surprise and gratitude in his voice.
He reached down and picked up the twenty, crumpled it in his fist and wadded it back into his front pocket.
“Coke adds life!” he suddenly said cheerily, as he laughed wryly, picked up his tray and smiled a peculiar smile.
Joseph Matheny is a writer, filmmaker and technologist that has played a role in establishing and evangelizing standards and practices such as CD ROM, PDF,
DVD, XML, RSS, Podcasting, ARG and digital video. He holds patents for prediction, recommendation and behavioral analysis algorithms and software design.
He is a published author of screenplays, white papers, technology, sci-fi, marketing and gaming books. He currently resides in Los Angeles, CA.